The Second Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle will now come to order!
"Let the second meeting of the Skeptics' Circle come to order!" he said, banging the gavel with a flourish. "As you know, the first meeting of our Circle was a great success, due mainly to your hard work and fine skeptical blogging!"
"Here, here!" Interrupted Radagast and Orac, raising their glasses in unison, as the Circle cheered and clapped.
"A toast to our President, whose vision and hard work organizing this club has made this all possible!" Radagast cried, leaping to his feet. The assembled Circle all raised their glasses in unison and drained them as one. As the servers wended their way among the crowd bringing additional pints to the thirsty skeptics, along with an assortment of appetizing pub fare, St. Nate continued.
"But we are not content to rest on our laurels! I want this Circle to endure and to keep getting better and more popular. I want to expand our membership! The blogosphere still remains a cesspool of the paranormal, pseudoscience, and quackery! We've had one success--a good start--but we must not let up now! This week, Orac, who volunteered to organize this week's meeting, will take his turn conducting the meeting. He has worked tirelessly to gather the best skeptical blogging and to publicize the Circle for all to see. Orac!" He motioned to Orac, who, clutching his second beer carefully in order to avoid spilling even a drop of the precious amber fluid, approached the podium, as the Circle applauded.
"Let's get right down to business," Orac said, grasping the sides of the podium and carefully setting his beer down. "When trying to decide what topic to lead off this meeting with, I had a conundrum. As a doctor and surgeon, personally I have an affinity for debunking quackery and questionable medical claims. I had therefore originally planned on leading off with that topic. However, ten days ago, an article"--he paused and drew himself up for dramatic effect--"was published in the pages of the New York Times"--he paused again--"an article that so roiled the skeptical blogosphere--and, most of all, the biologists among our membership--that it's impossible for me as a scientist also not to lead off with it. "
A murmur of boos and hisses rose from the assembled Circle, particularly from the biologists (and especially from PZ Myers, whose smile had turned to a scowl and who was now darkly muttering under his breath something that sounded like "pseudoscientific crap"). The members of the Circle all knew exactly of what Orac spoke. On February 7, Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (a favorite tome among creationists), had somehow gotten his defense of intelligent design published on the editorial page of the New York Times, provoking a firestorm of reaction in the science blogosphere. Before anyone else could rise to take the challenge, PZ practically leapt to the podium to deliver a devastatingly logical point-by-point rebuttal of Behe's article. When he finished, there was a brief moment of silence, and then the Circle burst into heated discussion. Orac tried to regain control of the group, but everyone was so anxious to interject their opinion on this controversy that they didn't listen. Comments flowed more freely than beer in the minutes after PZ's blog piece (many questioning why the New York Times would foolishly devote such a high-visibility and high-credibility platform to such pseudoscience), topping out at over 200 before the insistent pounding of Orac's gavel finally managed to restore order.
When things finally settled down, inspired by PZ's example, a new member of the Circle, The Socratic Gadfly, weighed in, calmly pointing out the logical fallacies contained in Behe's article. He was followed by Joshua, who carefully made his way past his fellow skeptics up to the podium, where he proceeded to read aloud (with his own comments interjected) his scathing letter to the editor in response to Behe's piece, in which he pointed out that, using Behe's criteria, one could just as well argue that the Old Man of the Mountain was "intelligently designed." Not to be outdone, another new member, Joe McFaul, echoed Joshua, pointing out that Behe's use of Mt. Rushmore as an example of how a scientist could potentially distinguish intelligent design from from natural processes is fallacious. Joshua's and Joe's complaints were then reinforced by yet another new member, Carryon Williams, who tried to expand further upon the same concept but was stymied by the poor design of the Microsoft connection he was using (which forced Orac to explain gamely that members who don't have or want an MSN Passport account might have to go here and scroll down to the February 11 entry of his blog to read the full text of Carryon's excellent writing). "Damn Microsoft and its attempt to pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist!" Carryon muttered as he returned to his seat, to have his place at the podium taken by Jason, who explained how creationists use many of the same rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies as those used by a cranks in general and a particularly nasty breed of cranks in particular.
After the presentations, another free-wheeling discussion ensued, highlighted by Joe's pointing out how intelligent design itself can "evolve" (and perhaps even--dare one say?--"speciate") and the Socratic Gadfly's wondering how creationists can so easily get a sympathetic hearing from the press about their claims of being "persecuted." "It's just as bad as the sympathetic hearing the Lobster Liberation Front gets when they claim that lobsters feel pain in the same way humans do!" interjected Brian, whose passion (and area of expertise) was the debunking fallacious scientific claims often made by radical animal rights activists.
The Circle agreed wholeheartedly that it must redouble its efforts to confront the insidious pseudoscience known as intelligent design creationism and the efforts of fundamentalists to misrepresent it as "science" in the classroom.
"Next topic," Orac interjected. "Now, it's time to discuss our skeptical inquiries into claims of medicine and quacks. Because alties are always claiming that we skeptics don't give them a fair shake, I've decided to begin this session with skeptical examinations of issues in conventional medicine. Then we'll move to questionable claims about conventional medicine that are often made by alt-med advocates and others. Finally, we'll save the skepticism about alternative medicine for last. Radagast?"
Radagast approached the podium. His pet peeve was a study that had received a lot of press recently claiming that fruit juice causes obesity in children. With a cold calculation that belied his previous boisterousness, he dissected the conclusions of the study with a surgical precision that Orac approved of and left it in tatters. He then continued, disbelieving that the media could pick up the story again, and launched into an even more detailed deconstruction of the study's conclusions, to the awe of the assembled skeptics. He was followed by Mark, who wanted to debunk a story about an actress going blind after using colored contact lenses. Next, Revere, ever the contrarian, approached the podium and carefully proceeded to question conventional wisdom about something most people rarely think about, the fluoridation of water, without falling victim to the usual paranoid claims voiced by the anti-fluoridation crowd. After he sat down again, Dr. Sydney Smith, apparently even more the contrarian than he, surprised the Circle with a speech asking whether the recent trend towards mandatory chickenpox vaccination for children might actually be putting adults at risk for serious cases of chickenpox and concluding that laws making this particular vaccination mandatory in some states might well be more a victory for Merck than for public health. A few of the physicians in the crowd muttered in disagreement, but others seemed to approve.
Sensing tension in the Circle and not liking it, Dr. Charles, who was known as the cut-up (non-surgical, of course) of the Circle and who had obviously consumed exactly the correct amount of beer to have gotten into the mood for some lighter skepticism (without affecting his wit one iota, it should be noted), began to expound in great detail about why thongs are such a grave danger to women's health. The Circle erupted in laughter. The tension dissipated.
The next several talks debunked bogus indictments of conventional medicine. At this point, it was Andrew's turn to approach the podium. Concerned about the misinformation regarding the MMR vaccine and autism, he launched into a blistering rebuttal of the anti-vaccination activists who claim MMR causes autism. Joshua agreed about the mendacity of the anti-vaccination activists, pointing out the fallacies of another vaccine myth, that of a supposed link between the polio vaccine and AIDS. Andrew couldn't resist adding that fear of the polio vaccine due to unfounded rumors may be leading to a resurgence of polio in Africa.
Now came the time in the program for a skeptical examination of alternative medicine, a favorite topic of Orac's, as the membership could tell from the gusto with which he introduced the next series of talks. Dr. Henochowicz began by expressing his skepticism about alternative medicine in general and his wonder at how people could so easily fall for claims about herbs that are so obviously medically fallacious. Shrinkette shook her head in disbelief and then took the podium to contribute an anecdote about her attempt to educate a patient who chose not to buy her needed medications in favor of purchasing "oxygenated" water instead. All the doctors in the Circle nodded in sympathy. (They had all seen variations of the same story in their own practices before, just with different "alternative" medicines.) Indeed, Dr. Charles lamented that sometimes, even when a physician does exactly the correct thing for a patient, it can be difficult to convince the patient of the correctness of the doctor's course of treatment, mainly due to misconceptions patients all too often harbor. For the last word on this topic for this meeting, Paul Lee fired up the Circle with a scathing debunking of one of the rationales that chiropractors sometimes use to justify their claim to being health care professionals.
Finally, with everyone fired up by the great skeptical blogging thus far in the meeting (not to mention the great food and drink), Orac introduced everybody's favorite part of the meeting, blogging about the paranormal, urban legends, and pseudoscience. Making this session even more fun was the number of new members contributing. Wolverine Tom, seized this chance to introduce himself to the Circle by debunking one of the most sacred of American myths, Punxsutawney Phil's prognostications on Groundhog's Day about the duration of winter remaining. Next, Bora Zikovic demanded that the credulous give him a break regarding claims that we have a "sixth sense," to which Majikthise couldn't resist adding her demand that Lawrence Summers give her a break from his simplistic comments about supposed biological differences between the sexes, and neither could Tim Lambert resist adding his demand that anti-environmental writers give him a break from their misrepresentations of the history of why Sri Lanka stopped using DDT. Bill Adams then expressed his annoyance at the lack of critical thinking in the reporting devoted to a strange incident of animal slaughter in England. Hedwig, however, was slightly more sympathetic to the credulous reporter, pointing out that even the most skeptical might, when their guard is down (early in the morning, for instance), be more susceptible to obvious scams or urban legends than they normally would be. Orac agreed, admitting to his fellow Circle members his recent embarrassment that he himself had been forced to question his own skeptical qualifications to host this very meeting, because he had once credulously reported on an incident that turned out to be most likely an urban legend--without even the excuse of having been sleep-deprived. This admission led to some good-natured ribbing from the group, which Orac deflected with his characteristic wit (at least he liked to think that's what did it).
Finally, it was time to close the meeting. As Founder of the Skeptics' Circle and the previous host, St. Nate was given the honor of the last speech. He had decided that he wanted to investigate a strange incident that sounded like an urban legend to him. He confronted head-on the "If Your Child is a Gothic, Reform Through the Lord" story, in which, it is said, certain Catholic Churches posted dire (and ridiculously over-the-top) warnings about Goth culture. He considered the story likely to be an urban legend (although a few members considered it possibly credible, given the documented strange things fundamentalists have said about rock 'n' roll, even recently). Orac could not help but suggest that perhaps St. Nate should counter this probable urban legend with the comprehensive analysis of Jesus' Gothness, Jesus Was Gother Than Thou. St. Nate drily replied that this was an excellent idea. He wasn't done yet, though. He finished by expounding upon modern day alchemists and the quest for immortality.
The Circle rose and gave him a standing ovation, leading to his taking many deep, exaggerated bows. "Only three more things remain," St. Nate announced, as he waited for the applause to die down. "First, we must congratulate all the presenters for some fantastic skeptical blogging and urge them to keep it up! Give them all a round of applause." The membership of the Circle responded to this plea, congratulating the bloggers with great enthusiasm. "Second, we must redouble our efforts to combat the credulity with which the blogosphere all too often greets claims of pseudoscientists, believers in the paranormal, and quacks. Keep that skeptical blogging coming!"
"Lastly, we must agree on who shall host the next meeting of the Skeptics' Circle, to be held two weeks from tonight on March 3. Any volunteers?"
"I'll do it!" shouted Radagast and approached the podium, before anyone else could say anything, narrowly edging out Bora and the Socratic Gadfly, both of whom were rising from their chairs as Radagast's cry cut them off. (This was much the same manner in which Orac had claimed the honor at the last meeting.)
"Will anyone second the nomination?" said Nate.
"I will!" said Orac.
"Then let's vote," continued Nate. "All in favor of Radagast's hosting the next meeting, raise your hands and say 'Aye!'"
"All opposed?" Utter silence answered, except for the distant murmur of the crowd in the main bar area.
"The ayes have it," shouted Nate. "Radagast shall host the next meeting of the Skeptics' Circle! Everyone, send your entries to him by March 2." A cheer arose from the Circle.
Orac gently elbowed Radagast. "You really have no idea what you're in for, you know," he said quietly. He then smiled, "By the way, I hope there's a good restaurant or tavern in Rhosgobel where we can hold the meeting. Skepticism is hungry work."
"And thirsty work, too," added Radagast, continuing, "Don't worry, there is..."
The Circle broke up into smaller groups and continued its boisterous fellowship and debate more informally. Over the next couple of hours, members filtered out one by one, until there remained only three stragglers (St. Nate, Orac, and Radagast) who lingered, united by their common experience of having been chosen to host this great event and their search for ways to make it better and more widely known in the blogosphere (not the least of which included the hatching of wild schemes to get their little fellowship noticed by their heroes, especially famous skeptics like The Amazing Randi, Michael Shermer, or even Penn & Teller). Orac happened to glance at the clock and noticed it was past midnight. He was grateful that he didn't have to operate or see patients the following day, but realized that he needed to get home anyway. He was no longer as able to tolerate sleep deprivation as well as he could in his younger days during his surgical residency.
So, saying their goodbyes, the remaining skeptics dispersed into the winter night, secure in the knowledge that they were doing their small part to promote reason, science, and skeptical thought in the blogosphere. It was enough.
[Note from Orac: Thanks to all who contributed, and particularly to St. Nate, the Founder of the Skeptics' Circle. It's been a blast. If I somehow forgot anyone's article, e-mail me and I will, besides apologizing profusely and abjectly, forward it to the next host. And thanks to the Madhouse Madman, who provided the inspiration for this particular style of organizing the posts. Finally, if you're a newcomer to the Circle, the first edition is here. If you're interested in hosting a future edition of the Circle, the archive and host schedule is here.]